Classical music: The Twentieth Century

I am quite certain in my heart of hearts that modern music and modern art is not a conspiracy, but is a form of truth and integrity for those who practise it honestly, decently and with all their being. — Michael Tippett


The twentieth century, like most centuries before it, began in turmoil, political, social, and artistic. (If you doubt me, think about what was going on in Europe in the early years of the nineteenth century.) The world was heading toward the first World War, communism and other political movements were gaining ground in Europe and America, and as for art — well, Picasso and Braque were turning painting on its head, the Dadaists and Surrealists were doing the same to not only painting, but literature and theater, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf were rethinking narrative fiction, Diaghilev was recreating dance, and — well, it didn’t stop.

oak_leaf_fallen_colored2KAs for music, we can find several strands of development in the twentieth century. There were those who stuck to more traditional ideas, following in the steps of Mahler, such as Richard Strauss and Sergei Rachmaninoff (albeit with a more-or-less apparent dose of what became known as “modernism”); there were influences from other traditions, such as the music of the East, which led to composers such as Claude Debussy creating new forms of composition; and then there were Stravinsky and Schoenberg, who to my mind did more than anyone else to influence the course of music in the twentieth century.

And that’s not even counting what was going on in America.


To start off, We have a couple of books about a composer who is little-known but exerted a major influence on American music in the post-post-War period. The first is Carol J. Oja’s Colin McPhee: Composer in Two Worlds, followed by McPhee’s own memoir, A House in Bali: ‘McPhee had heard recordings of Balinese music in the late 1920s and was completely captivated by the shimmering textures and subtle, complex rhythms. In 1931, he headed for Bali, where he spent most of the next seven years, building a house in a mountain village and immersing himself in the life and music of the island.’

We should also note that American music became a dominant force in the twentieth century. One composer who is as prototypically American as any — and quite deliberately so — was Aaron Copland, as we learn from Howard Pollack’s Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man: ‘Pollack claims, toward the end of his work, that “…from the start of his career, Copland set out to compose music that was ‘recognizably American’ and that reflected ‘the American scene…in musical terms.’ ” ‘


And then there’s film: I’m not talking about films about composers, although there have been more than a few of those, but rather the number of composers who created soundtracks for films. Starting with the introduction of “talkies” in the 1920s, musical accompaniment was no longer a matter of a pianist playing off to one side: there was music that was part of the film itself. And the list of composers who exercised their talents in this new medium is staggering, including such diverse artists as Aaron Copland, Benjamin Britten, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Johnny Cash, Jeff Beck — well, there are lots more.

Some composers took a different tack. Philip Glass, for example, took Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête, dispensed with the original dialogue and soundtrack by Georges Auric, and wrote his own soundtrack/opera: ‘Glass wrote the opera to synchronize with the dialogue in the film, and while the synchronization isn’t perfect here (the music was written for live singers performing in conjunction with the film), it’s close enough. Glass’ signature strong rhythmic structure has been harnessed to the action of the film, adding to the momentum, and the opera is unabashedly and unrepentantly melodic.’


We don’t usually think of Debussy, who died in 1918, as a twentieth-century composer — there is a school of thought that maintains that a new century doesn’t really begin until about fifteen years into it — its character is only nascent before then. Debussy was, however, influential, especially in Eastern Europe, but that came later. He is known, along with Maurice Ravel, as an “impressionist” composer, although his main influence, aside from the music of Asia, was the Symbolist movement. You can get a glimpse of the differences and similarities between the two in this album by American pianist Leon Fleisher: ‘Debussy, great iconoclast that he was, was indeed influenced by the impressionist painters and was in addition an extraordinarily adventurous composer who developed what has become a fundamentally important mode in contemporary musical expression, the so-called “tone block,” which has influenced composers as diverse as Penderecki and Pärt. Ravel is pre-eminently a structuralist, focusing on form (which may explain to some extent his delight in and fascination with jazz, which is, after all, a highly formal idiom) to build his shimmering tapestries of sound.’

Richard Strauss (who did not write waltzes about the Danube) is another of those whom, for the purposes of this discussion, I will call “traditionalists” (even though they’re not, strictly). He was not averse to exploring in all sorts of directions but stuck with the traditional forms, more or less, as witness his smaller scale works: ‘“Richard Strauss” and “chamber music,” I have to confess, are not concepts that have joined together easily in my mind. In my defense, Strauss is best known for his operas and full-blown orchestral works, probably the most popular of which, thanks to Stanley Kubrick, is Also Sprach Zarathustra.’

Igor Stravinsky is arguably the composer who most influenced those who came after, as well as many of his contemporaries. From the scintillating impressionism of such works as The Firebird through his studies of folk music through his experimentation with Schoenbergian atonalism and back to strict neo-classicism, he blazed almost too many paths to count. If you don’t believe me — well, just think a moment: ‘I don’t think anyone is going to argue the weight of Stravinsky’s influence on twentieth-century music. It is so pervasive that, for example, while listening to Petrouschka, I was reminded of the soundtrack for every busy urban scene in every film practically since sound became part of movies. No less a figure than Claude Debussy wrote to Stravinsky: “It is a special satisfaction to tell you how much you have enlarged the boundaries of the permissible in the empire of sound.” And this was in 1913, when Stravinsky was still only in his thirties.’ And happily, Sony has issued a massive set surveying his career — conducted mostly by Stravinsky himself.

Another major figure in the music of the twentieth century, who to my mind is too little recognized, is Béla Bartók. Like Stravinsky, he delved into the folk music of his native country, in his case Hungary, ultimately incorporating its forms into his own compositions; he also experimented with atonalism, although he wasn’t too thrilled with Stravinsky’s neo-classicism. We happen to have a good sampling of various points in his career in a disc of several of his chamber works: ‘The works presented on this disc from 2L provide a good illustration of the composer’s approach to composition at various times in his career through some of his chamber music, which to me is always one the best ways to find out what a composer is thinking.’

It’s really in the years after World War II that “classical” music exploded, more or less: in Central and Eastern Europe, music assimilated the influences of Debussy, Stravinsky, and, importantly, Arnold Schoenberg and his followers; America took its place on the world stage as a major player in the world of music, itself assimilating influences as diverse as John Cage, American folk music, spirituals, popular music and the music of Indonesia and India.

Let’s start with the Americans, since they were the new kids on the block so to speak. This collection of American works for piano performed by Leon Fleisher gives a good idea of what American music had been and to a certain extent continued to be in the twentieth century: ‘American music of the twentieth century, at least that variety that styles itself “serious” music, is inhabited by a range of highly independent composers. One of its most notable aspects, in fact, is its resistance to “schools” outside of the broadest categorizations. The only designation I can think of that encompasses such composers as Ives, Thomson, Barber, Feldman, Cage, Bernstein, Partch and Riley is “American.” ‘

John Cage was a seminal figure in American art, particularly music and dance, in the post-War period. One of the more significant of his followers, for lack of a better term, was Morton Feldman, whose Rothko Chapel and Why Patterns? bring Cage’s ideas to a wider audience: ‘Morton Feldman, born in New York City in 1926, met John Cage in 1949; it is hard to say exactly how much influence Cage had on Feldman’s development as a composer, but one can surmise that the spare, non-dramatic quality of these two works, the Rothko Chapel of 1971 and Why Patterns? of 1978, owe something to Cage’s ideas of silence as sound and everyday sounds as music.’

We mentioned above Colin McPhee, who was tremendously influential on one of the few American “schools” of music, the serial minimalists: Terry Riley, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich, to name the most prominent. Reich was perhaps the most consistent minimalist of the group, as typified by the works included in Steve Reich: The ECM Recordings: ‘ I first encountered Reich’s music in the late 1970s-early 1980s at concerts sponsored by Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, which also introduced me to the music of Philip Glass. It’s rather that the works of both composers at that time were what I call “hard-core serial minimalism,” a sort of take-no-hostages approach that was strict, tight, and much easier to watch in performance than listen to on recordings: at least in a concert you could watch the musicians.’

Riley and Glass moved in different directions after the early 1980s: Riley moved firmly into the camp of “American individualists,” as one might see in his Requiem for Adam: ‘I gave up some time ago the idea of Riley as a “minimalist” composer, although many consider him in that light. His music is too adventurous, too loose, to inquisitive to cast him in such simplistic terms. Looking back over this little essay, I realize that I’ve continually made references to other composers to try to describe Riley’s music. It’s an inadequate attempt. The hints are there, but they’re never more than hints, a phrase that almost could be, a color that reminds one of, a rhythm that recalls.’

Glass, on the other hand, while maintaining his strong rhythms and repetitive patterns, got looser, one might almost say “romantic” in a certain sense. Perhaps this was a result of his engagement with music for the theater: opera and dance. Satyagraha, while still fairly early in his career, shows the direction he was headed: ‘The remarkable thing about this music, “transitional” though it may be, is the way in which Glass’ basic compositional devices, repetitive rhythmic and melodic structures, aggregate into music that sounds almost traditional until you listen closely, when the influences from Indian and Indonesian music become obvious.’

There was a lot more going on in American music, but limitations of space force us to leave that and head toward Europe.

In the years after World War II, Germany was struggling to regain its identity (among other things), perhaps a good metaphor for the work of Bernd Alois Zimmermann as revealed in the works included on Canto di speranza: ‘West German composer Bernd Alois Zimmerman is one of those unclassifiable artists whose style progressed through what seems to be the normal twentieth-century pattern: neoclassicism, atonality and the twelve-tone row of Schoenberg, serialism, and finally a kind of polyglot style that resolved into what is known in Germany as “Klangkomposition,” a style marked by planes or blocks of sound, similar to the late music of Claude Debussy and found in one variation or another across Europe, especially in the east among composers as diverse as Krzysztof Penderecki and Arvo Pärt.’

Speaking of Arvo Pärt, his works pose the question “Just what is contemporary?” This is illustrated in Da Pacem, a collection of his shorter works: ‘Pärt has, since the late 1970s, worked largely in triads, essentially the same as Debussy’s “tone blocks,” which gives his music a strong likeness to early Church music. Indeed, he has deliberately used the modes and structures of medieval sacred music, although his vocabulary remains contemporary. (And it’s worth wondering if “contemporary” in this sense really denotes anything new.)’

We can’t really talk about post-War music in Eastern Europe without at least mentioning Dmitri Shostakovich, who managed to produce some innovative music in spite of Josef Stalin breathing down his neck. The incipient schizophrenia of his career is illustrated in this recording of this Symphony No. 5: ‘When I was first making my acquaintance with the range of the twentieth-century “classical” canon, the Shostakovich Fifth was the penultimate achievement of Soviet music. Shostakovich, although a loyal Soviet citizen, was also an artist, which is a breed not particularly amenable to outside control.’

We’ve barely skimmed the surface in this installment, but alas, space limitations rear their ugly head. (Heads?) However, we should mention Carl Orff, who, while he wrote some seriously scary operas — Oedipus der Tyrann, Antigonae, Prometheus, all in a strict, post-Schoenberg atonalist style — was also the creator of one of the most popular concert-hall staples, Carmina Burana, a cantata based on medieval manuscripts from the monastery of Benediktbeuren. It’s been performed innumerable times, in all sorts of settings — even in train stations.

About Robert

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

You may e-mail him, but include a reference to Green Man Review so you don’t get deleted with the spam.

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